For Les Carpenter, a passion for radio saved him. For Pauline Gordon, excelling in the classroom made the difference. And for Paul Andrews, remembering his father’s words gave him strength.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t want you to be a rich man, an important man. I want you to be a good man,’” Andrews told those attending a dialogue on resilience organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) at the National Northern Event here June 27 to July 1.
Carpenter, Gordon and Andrews shared their stories as part of a discussion panel on resilience moderated by Shelagh Rogers, CBC radio host and member of the Order of Canada. Each had something that helped them overcome the legacy of the residential schools. Psychologists call this phenomenon “resilience” or the ability to rise above adversity.
All three also share significant achievement. A pioneer in aboriginal education, Gordon was the first native to become a school superintendent in Canada. Andrews, a CBC TV and radio broadcaster, was a recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award this year for “bringing his Dene language to life.” Carpenter is president of CKLB radio in Yellowknife.
“Radio was something of a solace,” said Carpenter, who at the age of six was sent to the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Residential School in Inuvik and stayed at the nearby Anglican-run hostel, Stringer Hall. There were no telephones and anxious parents would often send “telegrams” over the radio. “I remember staring at the radio, hanging on to every word that was said,” recalls Carpenter. “It was my only connection to my parents and my community.” And, he added, “It was absolutely magical to be able to tune in to a hockey game.” Andrews, who went to the same school but stayed at the local Catholic-run hostel, Grollier Hall, said the gym—where the resilience dialogue was actually held—was “a saviour” to young boys like him. “We were good athletes. I didn’t have any basic education, so I was called dumb and stupid and I felt dumb and stupid. But being in the gym made me feel good,” he said.
Although she excelled at her studies, Gordon became an educator “because she couldn’t see herself reflected in the curriculum” of Canadian schools, noted Rogers. Gordon’s experience at Grollier Hall, where she often felt like a number, not a person, gave her a lot of empathy for students. When she became a teacher, she always talked to her students about their families and how they were getting along.
Carpenter said that to this day, he still has “some hatred” toward government. “It’s something that won’t go away. It’s complicated, but that’s my remembrance. Anybody can make an apology, but I want to see the results and benefits that come out of that.”
Andrews said the shared experience binds residential school survivors together wherever they are in Canada. “We went to hell and back. It’s a commonality that makes us very close.”